A War with Words: The Role of Conflict in Literature
Conflict is essential to fiction, and so even a short passage for the AP English Literature exam generally depicts at least one instance of unrest. A character’s approach to the conflict, as well as its origin and resolution, may be the subject of AP English Literature questions.
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once commented that all happy families resemble each other, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way. Tolstoy’s observation may be the reason why no one writes stories about perfect harmony. Conflict is simply easier to scrounge up, and it’s almost always more interesting.
In a complicated work, some or even all of these conflicts may appear and interrelate:
- One character against another: This type of conflict is straightforward: One character in a story has a grievance against another, and a battle ensues. A variation of this conflict sets one character against a few others. For example, Ralph, the leader of the “good guys” in William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, gradually comes into conflict with Jack and later with Jack’s “tribe” of hunters.
- A character or group against society: This kind of plot pits a character against society or a dominant group with a different agenda or values. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, lawyer Atticus Finch opposes the racist society in which he lives. Atticus has several sympathizers, but many in the town condemn his defense of a falsely accused black man, Tom Robinson.
- A character against nature: Mother Nature, when she’s having a temper tantrum, plays a central or supporting role in many novels and plays. Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, for example, depicts horrors that the main character, Janie, endures as she struggles to survive a fierce hurricane and subsequent flood.
- A character against himself or herself: Centuries before Sigmund Freud invited the first patient to lie on the couch, psychology was already a part of literature. Writers have always been aware of the contradictory inner emotions and impulses everyone experiences. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale is in a constant internal struggle to reconcile his place as a spiritual leader in the community with the sin of his secret affair with Hester Prynne, which resulted in the birth of their daughter, Pearl.
Conflict is most often expressed through action or dialog and description. The best writers can inject lots of conflict into just a few words.